It’s tempting to get sucked into all the good things this world seems to offer, from the people we love to the splendor before our eyes and think the world itself is good.
But be warned: The world is temporary, and those who chase after its finite pleasures and treasures can too easily fall prey to its illusion and turn from what really matters: God and His holy kingdom.
While many of us hold to his teachings, we often get confused about the Apostle Paul’s call for us to reject the world. In his letter to the early church in Rome, Paul writes,
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
But what does that really mean? And why is “the world” so bad?
Here, we explore why God calls us to cling to the transformative renewal found only in Him, and why Romans 12:2 is such a powerful verse to tuck close in our hearts.
What Is ‘The World’?
“The world” is a broad term that we can interpret to mean anything from creation to the people and pleasures found within it. But reading the full context of Paul’s words here indicates he’s referring to things not of the Lord — the philosophies and perspectives that run counter to the Kingdom of God.
God’s Kingdom calls us to put God first, to put others before ourselves, and to walk in honor, respect, and obedience to Him and His ways. But the world calls us to something different. It tells us to play the game of life, where we accumulate as many riches as we can and enjoy as many pleasures of the body and mind as we can.
Why Is it Wrong to Love the World?
While some things in the world are good — our spouse and children, our church and its people, the land and the innocent creatures in it — Scripture tells us repeatedly to turn away from the world and fix our eyes on Jesus. As the Apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them” (1 John 2:15).
That means setting aside not only selfish cravings but even strong family ties to put God above all.
Anything not of God is of the world. The world is a human-made construct. Loving what is of God that happens to be in the world is different from loving the world itself.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” and not to worry about the concerns of the body, from what we will eat or drink to the clothes we wear. For, He says, if we set our sights on God’s Kingdom, the rest will be provided in turn.
Jesus also says we should not store up for ourselves temporary “treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” but rather store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20). What He’s saying is to push aside the cares, passions, and concerns of this earthly and woefully limited life and focus on our eternal life in heaven with the Father.
We cannot focus on both. Jesus warns: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
What Does it Mean to ‘Conform’ to the World?
The word “conform” comes from the Greek suschématizó, which means to fashion, pattern, or style after. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “to be similar or identical, to be in agreement or harmony with,” and to “act in accordance with.”
When we conform to the world, we mimic it, agree with it, walk in its ways. We align our perspective with worldly things, such as fallible riches and bodies that eventually wither and die. In effect, we put the world above God in our grand hierarchy of importance.
That, in essence, is idolatry.
God calls us to love Him with the entirety of our hearts, souls, and minds as His greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). He also puts that first on the Ten Commandments that He gave to His people, Israel, in the wilderness (Exodus 20:3).
In his letter to the early church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul urges us to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14), for it is the path to destruction. Echoing Jesus’ warning that we cannot serve two masters, Paul elaborates, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:21).
That means not only participating in pagan festivals but also putting the world’s morals, people, or desires above or on the same level as God. It means staying as far away from these things or ideals as possible so we are not tempted to fall into their trap.
God tells us He is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). Loving the world, conforming to the world, is idolatry and will incite His wrath.
Is it Important to Be Transformed in Jesus?
However, along with the “don’t” in Romans 12:2, Paul offers a “do.” Don’t conform to the world, don’t align yourself with the world, don’t mimic its styles and perspectives, and wanton ways, Paul says, but do be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Transformed comes from the Greek metamorphousthe, from the root words meta and morpho. Just like the scientific process of metamorphosis, metamorphousthe means to change form, to become something new.
Instead of conforming ourselves to the world, then, we are to go from the caterpillar to the butterfly — that is, we are to become a new creation in Christ. We are to renew our minds, pattern ourselves after Christ and our eternal home in heaven with God, our Father.
As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
What Are Some Examples in the Bible?
What is sometimes troubling for Christians is the example we are offered in Matthew 12 about Jesus’ mother and brothers.
In the passage, Jesus is teaching a large crowd, including some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, when He is informed His mother and brothers were outside, wanting to speak to Him. His words in response might seem harsh to some: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to His disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers” (Matthew 12:48-49).
But His larger point, what He says next in verse 50, is the crux: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
The world tells us the bonds of blood and relationship between family members reigns supreme. But God transcends family ties and the blood bonds of mere DNA. As Christians, our true family members are our Christian brothers and sisters, with God as our heavenly and eternal parent.
These might also turn out to be our earthly descendants and relatives, but that is a worldly concern — entirely secondary. Our real priority, our main concern, should be our family in the Lord. That’s what Jesus appears to have been saying.
Another example is in Jesus’ choice to die on the cross to atone for the sins of the world. His disciples and others did not appear to understand His choice at first, for they were viewing His sacrifice through the lens of the world.
Even as Jesus carried His cross to the site of the crucifixion, He was taunted by the chief priests, teachers, elders, and others who watched: Save yourself if you really are the Christ. Let God rescue you if you are truly His son.
But Jesus set His eyes on heaven and chose for eternal good, not a temporary feel-good measure.
“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).
We are to reject this worldly life, Jesus was saying, and instead, cling to what is to come.
“What shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28).
His words are clear: Let the will of God in heaven be done — not the will of humanity.
We Are Citizens of Heaven
Finally, if we still are not convinced and still believe we can love the world and God simultaneously, Jesus makes another point: Keep in mind even if you love the world, the world does not love you, as He says in John 15:18-19,
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
We are not orphans but rather citizens of another Kingdom: Heaven. And when the time is ripe, Paul writes, our Savior “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21).
That is worth focusing on.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/benwhitephotography
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.